Newsweek is hardly known for going after religion, but you couldn’t tell that from the large article by Kurt Eichenwald that was published in December, “The Bible: So Misunderstood It’s a Sin.” Apparently heavily informed by conversations with Bart Ehrman, who’s quoted several times, the piece is designed to let readers know that the Bible is not a unified work of scholarship (hence carrying the implication that it’s not the direct word of God, or inspired by him), that it was pieced together over centuries from scattered writings, and that it’s full of errors.
Now the readers here are pretty savvy, and you probably know all this. But I’ll just repeat a few points that Eichenwald makes before I discuss his final and shameful capitulation to believers. Here’s what he says:
- The Bible is an error-ridden translation of the Greek original (oddly, Eichenwald doesn’t mention until the end that the Old Testament was written in Hebrew, not Greek), and a lot of the translation is bad—including the famous rendering of the Greek “young woman” into “virgin” when referring to Mary. This, of course, has led to erroneous dogma.
- Likewise for false interpolations in the Bible, like Jesus’s famous “let-he-that-is-without-sin-cast-the-first-stone” story, which was apparently confected by Middle Age scribes.
- Critical parts of dogma, such as the doctrine of the Trinity, don’t appear in the Bible, but were decided in big conferences like the council of Nicea, where the Nicene Creed originated. Sometimes these issues were divided by vote, putting the lie to the notion that the Bible is the source of such truths. (I discuss this dogma-by-vote issue in The Albatross.) Not everyone agreed with these decisions, precipitating a lot of bloodshed over things like the divinity of Christ.
- The Bible contradicts itself in different places. We all know of the discrepancies between Genesis 1 and 2, and between the accounts of the Resurrection in the four Gospels. Presumably the many Americans who are deeply ignorant of what the Bible really says are unaware of this stuff.
- Accounts of the life and doings of Jesus are unreliable because they were written decades after the fact, often by people who weren’t on the scene. Thus the existence of Jesus, and details of his life (if he existed) are less reliable than those of Socrates.
- The Bible sees a lot of things as sinful that right-wing politicians are actually doing now. For instance, we all know that Paul (in I Timothy) tells women to be silent (are you listening, Sarah Palin?); in Romans the faithful are admonished to avoid criticizing the government; and the Bible says repeatedly that prayer should be a private matter, practiced on your own and not exercised loudly in public. Newsweek notes that Republican politicians (Rick Perry comes to mind) regularly violate this dictum.
Well, most of us know this stuff, but it’s useful that it’s laid out in black and white for the religious American public, and that the lessons are given pointedly to politicians. But after all this demonstration of the fictitious and erroneous nature of much of Scripture, does Eichenwald find any merit in the Bible?
What do you think? This is America, so he has to. First, after a long disquisition on the contradictions about the Resurrection, he says this:
None of this is meant to demean the Bible, but all of it is fact. Christians angered by these facts should be angry with the Bible, not the messenger.
Of course it’s meant to demean the Bible, as he says so clearly in the second sentence. But Eichenwald’s osculation of faith’s rump gets worse at the end:
This examination is not an attack on the Bible or Christianity. Instead, Christians seeking greater understanding of their religion should view it as an attempt to save the Bible from the ignorance, hatred and bias that has been heaped upon it. If Christians truly want to treat the New Testament as the foundation of the religion, they have to know it. Too many of them seem to read John Grisham novels with greater care than they apply to the book they consider to be the most important document in the world.
But the history, complexities and actual words of the Bible can’t be ignored just to line it up with what people want to believe, based simply on what friends and family and ministers tell them. Nowhere in the Gospels or Acts of Epistles or Apocalypses does the New Testament say it is the inerrant word of God. It couldn’t—the people who authored each section had no idea they were composing the Christian Bible, and they were long dead before what they wrote was voted by members of political and theological committees to be the New Testament.
The Bible is a very human book. It was written, assembled, copied and translated by people. That explains the flaws, the contradictions, and the theological disagreements in its pages. Once that is understood, it is possible to find out which parts of the Bible were not in the earliest Greek manuscripts, which are the bad translations, and what one book says in comparison to another, and then try to discern the message for yourself.
And embrace what modern Bible experts know to be the true sections of the New Testament. Jesus said, Don’t judge. He condemned those who pointed out the faults of others while ignoring their own. And he proclaimed, “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. There is none other commandment greater than these.”
That’s a good place to start.
Most of this is fine—except for the conclusion. If we excise all the interpolations and contradictions from the Bible, and subtract the extra-scriptural dogma imposed later by religious authorities, what do we have left? What we have left is still a book of fiction, comparable to the Bhagavad Gita or Epic of Gilgamesh. Eichenwald doesn’t mention that the Biblical stuff that isn’t overtly fraudulent, or wasn’t added later, is also dubious, including the entire creation story and that of Noah’s Flood, the movement of the Jews to Egypt and their later exodus and wanderings in the desert, and so on. While Eichenwald wants us to stick to the earliest Greek manuscripts as the authentic Bible, how does that help us? Are we supposed to embrace those “true” sections? Ten to one those “true” sections include all the horrible stuff in Deuteronomy and Leviticus, as well as Jesus’s pronouncements about leaving your family and about the world soon coming to an end very soon.
Eichenwald gives us no hint about “how to discern the message for yourself.” If that’s the case, could he give us a hint as to what the message is? Or, if it’s simply up to each person’s judgment, how do we resolve conflicting “messages”? And of what use are churches and theologians?
Finally if the Bible’s message is simply bromides like “love thy neighbor” and “don’t kill,” well, do we really need the Bible for that when we’ve got Confucius and the secular Greek philosophers, all who wrote without the heavy veneer of superstition, deities, and the supernatural? Why read the Bible at all if we have lots of secular philosophers like Kant, Plato, Mill, and Singer, who convey even better messages, and whose writings are actually genuine?
If we must heap our own preconceptions on the Bible to get anything out of it, what’s the use? The book then becomes just a mirror of our feelings and biases. Better to read philosophers who actually make us think about things we hadn’t pondered before.